Hideki Irabu, once considered to be one of the best pitchers in the world, is dead, in what has been adjudged to be a suicide in late July.
He led a troubled life, struggling with a mixed-race heritage, growing up not knowing his father, causing controversy by refusing to bow to the conventions of Japanese and American professional baseball and battling with alcohol addiction and other problems in his later years.
But he also had an historic impact on U.S.-Japan baseball relations, particularly in the area of player rights (which, before him, had barely existed in the Japanese game). For this alone, he is worth remembering.
The road that Hideki Irabu took from Japan to the United States was an especially tortuous one, beset with obstacles erected by high-handed baseball executives who treated players as chattel. A player of lesser willpower might not have stayed the course.
As Jean Afterman, his one-time attorney, put it: “He went through the (expletive) jaws of hell to get where he wanted to go, but not once did he ever think of giving up. Because of him an entire generation of players in Japan has benefited.”
Irabu was a 193-cm, 100-kg hurler who could throw the ball at speeds up to 159 kph. This ability combined with a sharp breaking forkball, made him one of the best pitchers in Japan. Playing for the Chiba Lotte Marines he had led the league in ERA and strikeouts twice by the time he was 27.
American Bobby Valentine, who had managed Irabu at his peak in 1995, compared him to Nolan Ryan and urged him to think seriously about playing in North America.
It had long been Irabu’s dream to migrate to the major leagues and test himself against the world’s best, but he was limited by a strict Nippon Professional Baseball rule that granted free agency to Japanese players only after 10 long years of service (as compared to six years in the U.S.).
He discussed the possibility of a trade to a major league team with Lotte officials, and after some initial resistance they began to think it was not a bad idea. The team had just formalized an agreement with the San Diego Padres which called for annual player exchanges and other forms of cooperation.
Since the Marines lacked batting power, the front office thought that perhaps Irabu could be sent to San Diego in exchange for an American home run hitter.
But then Irabu announced he would only play for the famed New York Yankees, who reciprocated his affections.
He hired noted player agent Don Nomura who had just set the NPB on its ear by helping Hideo Nomo escape to MLB through an obscure “voluntary retirement” loophole that was quickly closed by the embarrassed owners.
Lotte’s acting owner Akio Shigemitsu was not happy at this impertinence. Shigemitsu was a Japan-born Korean, whose father Takeo had founded the vast Seoul-based Lotte candy, chewing gum and hotel empire that had operations all across Asia. He was used to total obedience, as were most baseball franchise owners in Japan who ruled the game like Tokugawa Era feudal lords, treating their players like personal property, refusing to deal with player agents and dictating terms to a fearful and compliant players union.
Shigemitsu threatened to keep Irabu out of baseball for the 1997 season. When Irabu and Nomura responded with a threat to challenge Lotte’s claim that it held worldwide rights to Irabu’s services in a U.S. court, Shigemitsu’s lieutenants devised a diabolical tactic on behalf of their boss.
They proposed a secret, bizarre compromise under which Lotte would verbally promise to do its best to deal Irabu to the Yankees, if, in return, Irabu would sign a “personal” letter, handwritten by a Lotte front office executive, agreeing to follow the will of the front office.
It was just a formality, Irabu was told by a Shigemitsu retainer, but one necessary to mollify the Lotte shogun, who did not want a 27-year-old corporate vassal dictating terms to him. Promised that the letter would never see the light of day, Irabu, against his, and Nomura’s, judgement, signed it.
Shigemitsu then offered Irabu to the Yankees, requesting that, in return, he be given All-Star first baseman Cecil Fielder, who had hit 39 homers that year, with the further stipulation that the Yankees pay one-half of the slugger’s $10 million salary to boot. The Yankees, predictably, called the request preposterous and refused.
Thus, in a meeting in January with Irabu and Nomura, who had been granted a rare seat at the table, Shigemitsu said that he had made his best efforts to grant Irabu’s wish, but since the New York Yankees would not cooperate, he had no choice but to trade the “exclusive negotiating rights” to Irabu to the Padres for two second-tier players.
“You’re no longer part of this club,” he said, and ended the meeting.
Irabu was stunned at the chicanery. He flatly refused to go to San Diego, turning down the Padres’ three-year $4.5 million offer, which had come with a $2.5 million signing bonus and reiterated his desire to go to the Yankees.
When San Diego executive Larry Lucchino said that if Irabu did not sign, he would have no choice but to sit out a year, Irabu told reporters, he had just been subjected to a “slave trade.”
Shigemitsu then released the personal letter signed by Irabu to the media.
“This document shows that Irabu was willing to join any team in the major leagues,” declared the acting owner. “I wish he would stop being so self-centered.”
A special session of the MLB Executive Council was convened in San Diego in February of 1998 to resolve the impasse and the council ruled in favor of the Padres, ignoring a sworn affidavit by Irabu about the origins of the personal letter and the verbal promise by the front office of a Yankees trade, which Lotte had not even bothered to refute.
The council issued a written statement citing a 1967 working agreement between the U.S. and Japan baseball commissioners that did not specifically prohibit trades between the two countries.
The rights of the Japanese players were an issue, the council allowed, but said that was a matter for others to consider. The Padres would retain exclusive negotiating rights.
Had Irabu been a different sort of person, he might have signed with the Padres at that point. San Diego was a nice, clean town. The weather was good and there were lots of golf courses.
But Irabu had a sensitive streak as wide as Tokyo Bay. To his way of thinking, the San Diego organization had disrespected him as much as Lotte had by issuing that “sign or else” ultimatum. And he wasn’t about to let that go by the boards.
Moreover, he had begun to feel an obligation to other players to ensure that in the future they would not find themselves in a similar position.
“This player will never sign any contract with San Diego, ever,” said Afterman, then working with Don Nomura. “When he does get the club of his choice, there will be a no-trade clause — no trade to San Diego. Not because of the players, but because of the ownership and management treated him like a piece of property, a piece of meat.”
For a time Irabu considered rejoining Lotte, which still retained “reservation” rights to him within Japan (as opposed to the “negotiating” rights held by San Diego), under the labyrinthine deal that had been struck.
Free agent eligibility requirements in Japan had just been lowered to nine years, and theoretically Irabu could put in his time and qualify as a bona fide free agent, which, according to the math involved, would be sometime in the middle of the 1997 season.
But Lotte quickly put an end to such fantasies. Marines spokesman Yuji Horimoto announced the conditions under which Lotte would take Irabu back.
First he would have to apologize for his behavior in general and in particular, his grievous calumny depicting the Marines’ business practices as “slave trade,” a statement, said the spokesman, that had “gravely injured the Marines reputation.”
But that was not all, the spokesman said. Demonstrating the grasp of civil rights that had long been the hallmark of Nippon Professional Baseball, he further announced that Irabu would have to submit written statements to the MLB and Japanese baseball commissioners, to all MLB clubs and to Shigemitsu himself, vowing that he had given up trying to play in the MLB and promising that he would never, ever again in his entire life attempt to play baseball for a team in North America.
It was an arrangement, Afterman noted dryly, that would make Irabu the oldest living reserved player in either country. The good news was that he would not be required to commit hara-kiri (ritual suicide).
Despite largely critical press reviews back in Tokyo by the pro-owner Japanese sports media, which had portrayed Irabu as a selfish ingrate, as well as by the press in San Diego, where the populace had been offended by Irabu’s rejection of their city, the Irabu-Nomura team refused to bend. It sought help from the Major League Baseball Players Association, whose leaders thought Irabu had been screwed.
“If Irabu had the name of John Smith, with blond hair and blue eyes,” said the eloquent MLBPA attorney Gene Orza, implying that discrimination had somehow affected the MLB executive council decision, “I do sincerely believe that all this would have never happened.”
Behind Orza, the union applied pressure, threatening legal action. Thus, in the following spring, the executive council reversed itself and initiated a freeze on future transactions of the San Diego-Lotte type, producing a new rule that prohibited a player’s contract or the exclusive rights to it from being sold or traded to or from a U.S. club without that player’s express permission.
At the same time, San Diego, thoroughly disgusted with their Lotte experiment, gave in and traded Irabu to New York for three Yankee reserves.
Thus, Irabu got his wish. But, more important, he would go down in history as a champion of players rights for his refusal to accept the Lotte trade to San Diego, which had thereby attracted media attention to the deal.
The ensuing criticism of the Lotte-San Diego transaction on the part of other MLB teams, which had also coveted Irabu at the time (followed by an episode involving Alfonso Soriano, who wanted to leave the Hiroshima Carp to play for the Yankees), led to the creation of the posting system, currently in use by Japanese and MLB teams.
The posting system is a mechanism whereby a player not yet eligible for free agency who wishes to play in America can be “posted” by his team, which then sells the negotiating rights to his services to the highest MLB bidder.
Among those Japanese players who joined the MLB via the posting system are Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose rights were sold to the Boston Red Sox on a record $51 million bid, the Sox subsequently signing Matsuzaka to a $50 million contract covering six years.
If posting had been available in Irabu’s day, he would have been the subject of fierce bidding. As it was, however, when he went to the Bronx, he signed a four-year deal for much less, $12.8 million.
“Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Matsuzaka, they all owe a big debt of gratitude to Hideki Irabu,” said Nomura. “They were only able to get the deals they did because Irabu had the guts and the will to stick it out.
“(Hideo) Nomo was a piece of cake compared to what Irabu went through. In Nomo’s case, we had a clearly written rule on our side which allowed a voluntarily retired player to go to the States — before it was changed.
“With Hideki it was a much tougher matter. There was no rule of precedent. It was a question of right or wrong, a moral principle. And Hideki had a full realization of what was at stake historically and that sustained him.
“I remember Hideki telling me, ‘If I give in now, then everybody else will lose the right to reject a trade overseas.’ I was very proud of him.”